Hope for the Future of the Church in the Midst of the Struggle

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This Sunday was originally scheduled to be our confirmation Sunday. Marceline, Mt. Zion, and Bucklin Methodist students were engaging in a church history and theology course and were preparing to confirm their faith in Jesus Christ. I look forward to completing that course with our students and celebrating their decisions as soon as we can!

While putting that ministry on hold was probably the most painful decision I’ve had to make as a pastor in this season so far, I am no less hopeful for the future of the Church! God knows the plan and it is good!

I’ve often used Jeremiah 29:11 as a scripture to celebrate graduations and to encourage individuals facing various crossroads. But in context, this verse is not written only to the individual believer, rather to all God’s people…today we call ourselves the Church.

The book of Jeremiah, overall is not a hopeful book. It is quite the opposite. The majority of these chapters are filled with condemnation and prophesy of destruction and judgement. There are just three chapters (of 52) that focus on restoration.

Meanwhile, God’s people are exiled. They have been taken into captivity by the Babylonian King. They are scattered in an unfamiliar land, surrounded by strangers. They don’t know if they are safe or in danger. They don’t know how long they will be there or why God has allowed this to happen.

In the midst of all this condemning prophecy, God speaks to His people. There are false prophets saying that this exile will be over in about two years and God says, “Actually, it is going to be 70 years, so I want you to settle in. For many of you, this is now your home. Treat it as such. Buy a house, plant gardens, marry, and have a family.” (My paraphrase)

God says to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile, (and pray for it), because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7) We too have people saying our quarantine captivity will end by a certain date, and that date keeps getting extended. Only God knows how long our captivity will last. Therefore, we too may need to settle in. Plant a garden and eat its produce, pray for our communities, and set an example of peace and prosperity in this season. What might it mean to “seek the peace and prosperity” of this season?

We must set our minds on things above rather than earthly things. Remember, this is also the Easter season! We have just celebrated Christ’s resurrection from the dead and, as Paul writes is 1 Peter chapter 1, “He has given us new birth into a living hope…that does not perish, spoil or fade.” Paul says, “In THIS you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”

Paul was also writing to exiled and scattered believers who were strangers in their cities. Matthew Henry’s Commentary reads, “Hope, in the world’s phrase, refers only to an uncertain good, for all worldly hopes are tottering, built upon sand…But the hope of the (children) of God is a living hope; not only as its object, but as to its effect also.” Henry says that this living hope “enlivens and comforts in all distress, and enables (the believer) to meet and get over all difficulties.” (p. 1231)

So, to seek the peace and prosperity of our current captivity, means to seek the peace and prosperity of Christ in our circumstances. To set our minds on the living hope we have in Christ and remember that no matter what we are facing, we already have the promise of victory! 

Both of these scriptures are written to the exiled believers as a whole. These truths apply both to their individual lives, and to the life of the Church as a whole. The future of the Church does not depend on a building, programing, funding, or even a denomination. These things are only necessary to the way we’ve grown accustomed to being the Church. The future of the Church is secured in Christ!

The future of the Church depends on individual believers collectively sharing this living hope with their neighbors- something that many believers have forgotten to do as we’ve focused our time and energy on life and program ministries in the building. 

Both of these scriptures call the people to recognize that they may not be the generation to see the end result of their captivity. Gee, I certainly hope that isn’t the case for us, but I recognize that for some, it is.

Paul writes, that the prophets learned they were serving future generations rather than their own in speaking of the hope of the coming messiah. (1 Peter 1:10-12) The ways we live and glorify God always impact future generations of the Church. And through Jeremiah, the Lord says to the exiles, “settle in and multiply! Do not decrease in number, but increase.” Yes, the Church can grow even while our buildings are empty and the people cannot gather.

The Lord instructs them to build relationships with their new neighbors- who are not believers- to the point of even marrying them or giving their children in marriage to them. This is strange because in Deuteronomy chapter 7 God instructed the Israelites NOT to intermarry nor allow their children to do so because they would turn them away from God. Also, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:14, not to “be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.”

Again, God knows the plan here. God knows the hearts of these people and knows whether they will be brought to faith by these relationships or more likely to lead God’s people astray. God knows the hearts of His own people and whether their faith is strong enough to stand against that temptation. The earlier Israelites proved time and gain to have fragile or fair-weather faith. They were easily led astray.

By the Time of the Babylonian Exile, God’s people had grown up and must have formed a more solid foundation of faith, because God would not have instructed the exiles to intermarry and be led astray. They are to build relationships with their neighbors in order to evangelize and invite them into God’s family.

This is a great time for us to be doing the same thing- not necessarily marrying or giving our children in marriage (we have to stay 6 feet away from each other), but building relationships with our neighbors with the intent to share with them the hope we have in Christ.

Both of these passages also include a “when” promise. In Jeremiah 29, the Lord says, “When seventy years are completed… I will come to you and…bring you back to this place.” And Paul writes in 1 Peter 1 that when Jesus Christ is revealed, the genuineness of your faith proven by these trials will result in praise, glory and honor. 

As we are faithful to face our trials and seasons of exile or captivity with our hope firmly in Christ, the Church, God’s people as whole, will prosper through it. We are setting an example of faith and laying a foundation for future generations of the Church.

Paul wrote, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” This is our greatest treasure! The salvation of our souls and the souls of our neighbors is what truly matters in every season and it is the primary ministry of the Church in every season, including now.

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